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I've read that leaving your character alone for too long can spell death for your novel. That you should put them out there in the world so they can interact with other characters. That you shouldn't leave them inside their heads thinking aloud. But there's an element of that that doesn't feel real to me. After all, we all spend a great deal of time inside our own heads.

So, how do you strike a balance? How much time inside their head is too much time? Is it okay, if your character sits in the bath lamenting for 1,200 words, so long as those 1,200 words are quite amusing and interesting? Or does it spell death? Should I ditch that entirely and bring another character into the mix?

I mean, look at The Girl on the Train, she spent thousands of words lamenting on the train. So how much is too much?

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    Another interesting example is Catcher In The Rye. – Todd Wilcox Jan 29 '18 at 14:50
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Yes, we all spend a great deal of time inside our own heads. But please notice that we get BORED doing just that. We want some experience, some interaction with the outside world. That's why the books that depict action and dialogue far outnumber the ones that focus on reflection.

"How much is too much" is a very good question. In my opinion, that's very much depends on a book. "The Girl on the Train" is popular among some readers, but not all of the readers. If your book primarily focuses on person's perception and feelings, then it's perfectly fine to leave the main character alone for some time. But you have to make sure that neither your character not the reader gets bored.

  • Thx for your time. It's a psych thriller, so there's plenty of action and dialogue in other chapters. And, in fact, there's a lot of action before and after this scene within this chapter. This is a moment of pause and self-reflection in the middle of it. Does 1,200 words seem like too long a pause? Or am I stressing too much so long as there's enough going on in the rest of the chapter? – GGx Jan 22 '18 at 19:45
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    For a thriller, 1200 words indeed looks like a long pause. Make sure this chapter is relevant or amusing, or a thrill-seeking reader may flip it over. – Alexander Jan 22 '18 at 19:53
  • Thanks Alexander, I'll revisit the scene and see what I can do with it. Appreciate your time. – GGx Jan 22 '18 at 19:57
  • Not all of us get bored in our own heads. – Todd Wilcox Jan 29 '18 at 14:49
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+1 Alexander. I would add the following observation: The book is about the transformation a character is going through, what is commonly called an "arc" but is in essence a change. Sometimes a literal change, like "coming of age" stories, or romances (becoming a lover or spouse), or ascension (becoming a leader), or stories of a loved one dying (which changes us, perhaps into an orphan or widow or widower, or the loss of a friend or teacher changes us in some way). In other stories it is just a change of personality: From gang banger to priest, from frat boy to soldier, from fearful to courageous, from humble hobbit to heroic champion. From kid on a moisture farm to Jedi Knight.

Time spent inside a character's head is fine, but if it is long, it stalls the story. They do need to process experiences and new information, but walking in mental circles just gets boring. If the thoughts are not fitting pieces together and coming to new conclusions, then the reader will get bored. They expect us to skip that part and show them the thoughts and scenes and experiences that advance the change, whatever it may be.

If the time inside the head is not changing the character by solving puzzles, making realizations, reaching conclusions or inventing plans of action (that they intend to carry out), if they are just wondering and wandering and accomplishing nothing, the space is wasted.

Humor has its place and is welcome, but is seldom welcomed in a long form, pages long, and that will just stall the story. Readers will give you some rope and read for awhile when they aren't sure what the point of a scene may be, but they DO expect there to be a payoff at the end. If the payoff [a character changing moment] is not evident, or seems small and incremental compared to the length of the scene, they will be dissatisfied with the writing.

If that is a recurrent theme, they will start skipping to the end of the scenes to see if there is any payoff. And finally they will put the book down, as too much filler and not enough plot, or suspense, or events of interest.

Character change almost always requires an outside catalytic interaction, something that forces learning or philosophical re-evaluation, experiences with the outside world. It almost never occurs by long introspection, most minds have long ago achieved equilibrium of beliefs and habits and performing the duties and rituals of daily life. That equilibrium must be disrupted, somehow, in order for change to occur. The disruption is usually unexpected, and requires dealing with the outside world in new ways.

Writing internal dialogue because it is fun might be distracting you from the damage it is doing to your story as an irrelevant roadblock that breaks the expectations of readers.

I would say it becomes "too much" when the thoughts stray into areas that will have no impact or influence on the character's actions, or other characters, or the plot. Then you are wasting the reader's time with irrelevancies.

  • That's the crux. I wish you could read it. She isn't walking in mental circles and is coming to new conclusions. It's the moment she realises, after 2 years of trying, that she's pregnant. The moment is crucial and an amount of introspection is justified, even necessary. I've cut the scene drastically, but concerned it's still too long. And of course I think it's interesting (otherwise I wouldn't have written it). And that's the challenge isn't it? This question appears a lot: how do I know if what I find interesting is interesting to a reader. The eternal question for a writer. – GGx Jan 23 '18 at 12:08
  • If it results in decisions that change the character and her actions and is determinative in setting a future path, meaning without this scene her subsequent actions make no sense, then it is legitimate. If this is a big turning point, great! Presume readers are interested in her and her desires and dilemma, and the reasons she is transformed, IF they know enough about her. A common mistake is jumping into a crisis too early, BEFORE readers "know" her, and trying to give a portrait during a moment of crisis. Show her 'stable state" in Act I, her crises at the end or even well into Act II. – Amadeus Jan 23 '18 at 13:17
  • super helpful as always. Thx. – GGx Jan 24 '18 at 11:26
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There's nothing inherently wrong with a story that is mostly one character's thoughts. Robinson Crusoe is a classic, and it's mostly one guy talking about his life.

Like many things in writing, it's all about whether you do it well or poorly. I've seen plenty of "action" movies that were all about car chases and fight scenes and things blowing up, and despite all the sound and fury, they signified nothing and were totally boring. I've read stories that were just two characters discussing some cerebral philosophical question that were fascinating.

To say that a story is "just one character talking to himself" ... is he talking about something interesting or something boring?

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You can be alone yet the action keeps on going.

Since you want to do a thriller, the quiet, introspective time could be interrupted by noises, or a car driving by prompting your main character (MC) to look out trying to see who/what it is. They may turn on/off the lights and run from window to window. Grab the old shotgun, and struggle to remember where they keep the spare slugs. Then something triggers the outside floodlight. Is it the killer? No, it must be a deer, there are always deer this time of year. Then rain begins to fall.

I mean just because you are alone doesn't mean nothing happens. I try to break the overly introspective moments with actions.

The death of such scenes is when a character just sits down and argues with themselves for pages on.

She remembered her wedding. John was so nice in his black tuxedo with perfectly shined shoes and the flower, a daisy uncle Tommy had grown in his greenhouse. The same greenhouse where he grew the tomatoes he gave to everyone at Christmas, how good were those tomatoes! Aunt Janet and she would stew them, in early November, warming the house as the weather cooled outside.

Okay I'm already yawning, especially if the rest of the story does not have to do with the wedding, the tomatoes, Tommy and Janet...

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    JP and DPT Thanks... this is really helpful. I can come up with ways to maybe break up the scene with more physical action. Though this is based in Oxford, UK. So, pulling a hand gun out of the nightstand or grabbing the old shotgun would prompt readers to ask, 'What the hell is she doing with a hand gun in her nightstand!?' :) – GGx Jan 24 '18 at 10:51
  • ... get a cup of hot tea then. We all know that everything in the UK is resolved with a cup of tea. No really, it is. – JP Chapleau Jan 24 '18 at 15:43
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    You're not wrong! It is the first thing we do when the chips are down! – GGx Jan 24 '18 at 18:23
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One idea is to use an alternating POV. Protagonist 1 has chapters of solitude, protagonist 2 does not.

Chapters should still be short. 1200 sounds fine if it isn't just thinking, but a bathtub scene doesn't give a whole lot of external items to work with.

You can create the illusion of dialog by having the character speaking aloud (talking to himself), and having internal thoughts, and memories.

One example: In a bathtub scene, halfway through, your MC could hear something in the house and panic.


"Hello?" She looked at the bathroom door in panic. "Is anyone there?" The clattering in the hallway happened again. She grabbed her towel and got out of the tub.

"Who's there? I have my cell phone. I'm calling the cops!" Silence. She crept to her nightstand and checked her handgun.

Loaded. Alright, Motherf##ker. Bring it.

She crept slowly to the hallway with a towel anchored under her armpits and her hair dripping onto the carpet. She rounded the corner, ready to blow the intruder to kingdom come, and then breathed a huge sigh of relief. "Stupid cat. Stop playing with the kids' toys."

She went back to the nightstand to put the gun away, then to her bath which was still piping hot, and relaxed into it. "Now. Where was I?"

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